In 2001, our Special Collections Center was privileged to conduct oral history interviews with several area World War II veterans and others who were personally connected to the War, both home and abroad.
On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, we wanted to share the experiences of Michael Cervantes, an Army corporal, and Iris Hetzler, a second Lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps.
Michael Cervantes was drafted into the Army in February of 1943 at the age of 19 and served in the European Theater until 1945. He and his unit were fresh from training when they were sent overseas.
“From beginning to end there was always, each soldier reacted differently. There were people that were really anxious to get over there and get started, do whatever needed to be done. There were people who didn’t say a word, did not mention the war or what might happen. And then there were those that were just frightened to death.”
“ . . . when we arrived [in June of 1944] we were just told that we were going to journey on south and eventually end up in England. Of course, when you’re a non-commissioned officer of low rank you really aren’t told very much. But later we learned that we had landed in Scotland. We really didn’t know where we were. And we’re boarded on to a combination of troop transport trucks and trains to get to our next training area, which was in England.
“[We] had already received all of the training that we were going to get as far as what we were going to do with the equipment that we had. The training that we receive there was more the purpose of crossing the English Channel on whatever type of boat we were going to use . . . Even then we really did not know where we were going to land . . . We really didn’t have any new information of how much of France they had invaded and where they were positioned . . . And all we knew we were going to board a transport ship but we really didn’t know we were going.
“ . . . the invasion was a big secret and even though the invasion happened before I went across the channel, it was still part of the first days of the invasion . . .
“[For] us, war still wasn’t something that we had experienced. We had only seen documentaries of past wars. My first awakening of the war was when I saw the first German tank that had been hit and that was on fire and that there were casualties, German casualties on the tank and around the tank. We tried to escape the fire of the tank and that was when I really knew what it was going to be like.
“Well, we landed and met no resistance because whoever had landed before us had at least made it safe for us to land. So for us, we did not wade through water or not much water because we really did get in close to the shoreline. And we began our advance . . . We were really a half-track unit whose primary responsibility was aircraft. We were an anti-aircraft unit. My particular unit was a half-track with four fifty-caliber machine guns on it. And our responsibility was really to position ourselves as the first outer ring of whatever we were supposed to defend be it a hospital, an ammunition dump, a food supply dump or whatever needed to be protected.
“ . . . We began in France in Normandy and then proceeded through Normandy. We went through central France. We went south of Paris. We went to, we traveled Luxembourg and then through Belgium and then we finally got to the German order. Of course, we had met resistance through a lot of that country or countries that we traveled. But when we finally reached the German border and our first experience was the Sauer River and it was near the town of Saarbrucken and then we met the heaviest resistance that we had in all of the war. We appreciated some of our engineering companies were able to put up pontoon or bailey bridges to cross the river but the Germans had that all planned and they would no sooner have the bridge up and ready to cross and they would blow it apart because they were on the other side just waiting for us to finish the job. So it was very difficult but we finally made it across and into German territory.”
For Mr. Cervantes, the Normandy invasion was only the beginning. To read or hear more of his story, in his own words, please contact our Special Collections Center.
Iris Hetzler—the mother of Ann Hetzler, a librarian with the Davenport Public Library—graduated from St. Luke’s Hospital Training School for nursing in September of 1941. A member of the Red Cross, she joined the Army Nurse Corps in May of 1942. By 1943, she was serving in England as a second lieutenant.
“Our hospital in England was near Swindon. And Swindon was quite a railroad center, I think. It seemed like when the Germans came over to bomb London they kind of came in and made a turn over Swindon and the same was true when our fliers went out over the continent. They kind of came through there somehow. And we could tell the difference from the sounds of the engines which was which. But the night before D-Day…these missions would start maybe about dusk and end by midnight at least. And this time they went on all night. So we knew that the big day must be here.
“ . . . we knew D-Day was coming. We didn’t know when, but we knew it was coming. Everything was pointing to that. Those planes went on all night. And then, oh less than 24 hours we were receiving patients from the beaches, directly from the battlefield. . . . Most of my patients were ambulatory until D-Day. And then we did begin to get patients. Usually not so badly injured or sick, but they weren’t ambulatory. And that made it difficult because we didn’t have the personnel to take care of them and do the KP that every ward had to do. So that was kind of tight. But each ward was a Quonset hut separate and they were connected by cement. In my area, there was a wide enough cement area for an ambulance to drive down and then walks off of that, so that they could transport patients even by stretcher there . . . Then we turned the unit over then to another hospital and began to go overseas again . . .”
“They took us off the ship just as it was getting dark and we had to walk down a ladder to this LST, I think it was, that would take us into shore. That couldn’t even get all the way in. They let the front end and we’d wade in . . . But then there was supposed to be transportation there to move us . . . But the transportation wasn’t there. And one male officer was left in charge to take care of things like that. So he said, well, you all stay here and I’ll go see what I can do. I remember Eleanor and I, everybody had been issued these so-called raincoats. I don’t think anybody ever wore them because they were heavy, stiff sort of thing. We took out our raincoats and one of us laid it in the sand. Then we laid down all cuddled up and covered up with the other one because it gets cold at night. Slept for, I don’t know, a couple hours I guess. That was about as comfortable as we’d been for a while.
“Then they roused us up. It was dark, very dark. They hauled us around for two or three hours trying to find where we were supposed to be. I remember going through this one village. I could see it was in rubbles, but I could see a doorway with just a slit of light around it. It kind of bothered me.
“Finally our convoy stopped and the drivers all got out and conferred with each other and our driver says, “I don’t know where we are or where we’re going, but if we keep going that way we’re going to be on the front lines.” He was just really scared to death. And so was everybody else, because we could hear gunfire all the time.”
Over a hundred Nursing Corps personnel, including Mrs. Hetzler, were relocated several times for their own safety and later moved into Paris once it was freed by General Patton and worked in the hospitals there.
To read or hear more of Mrs. Hetzler’s story, in her own words, please contact our Special Collections Center.
Our Special Collections Center has many Oral Histories available—many of them have also been transcribed.
Please ask the Special Collections Staff if you would like to learn more about the experiences of local veterans in their own words.
“Oral History Interview with Iris Hetzler.” (Interviewer: Ann Hetzler), OH31-Hetzler, 21June2001
“Oral History Interview with Michael Cervantes.” (Interviewer: Gaye Foster), OH28-War, 19Jun2001.